The Supreme Court in North Carolina recently ruled in favor of Ford over its seat belt system product defect in the Taurus. The court overturned the ruling in the Court of Appeals, which had also reversed the decision of a trial court. The issue was whether the product modification defense, provided to manufacturers and sells in product liability actions, applies only if the one who modified the product is a party to the litigation. The current law, protects manufacturers and sellers from liability for injury proximately caused by modification made by someone else to their product without their consent.
In 2003, a wife and husband were driving their children to school. After making a U-turn the car started to accelerate rapidly. Both the wife and husband struggled with the steering wheel before the car went up and over a curbed island and slammed into a concrete base of a light pole. At no point did the wife apply the brakes. As a result of the incident, all in the car suffered injuries, the kids suffering the worst injuries. The son had to have emergency life-saving surgery as a result of the injuries he sustained and the daughter suffered injury to her spinal cord.
The plaintiffs claimed that Ford’s seatbelts caused the more serious injuries. They argued the seat belts did not fit correctly or hold them in place during the crash. However, the jury concluded that the plaintiffs could not sustain an unreasonable design claim for the seatbelt with regard to Cody, but did so with Cheyenne. However, because her enhanced injuries were caused by a modification of the car, it relieved Ford of its liability. The next court, ruled in favor of the plaintiffs stating that the plaintiffs were entitled to a directed verdict on Ford’s affirmative defense under the current law (99B-3). Finally, the Supreme Court reversed the Appeals court ruling and stated that their ruling was not supported by the text of the statute.